[Part III of the author's "Conceptions of Romantic Love in Pre-Raphaelite Painting and Poetry."]

Of the artists discussed in this essay, only Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Sir Edward Burne-Jones constitute a clear and unmistakable lineage. Stylistically, the influence of Rossetti on Burne-Jones is quite apparent, although it seriously dominates only his early works. Regarding subject matter for painting, Burne-Jones also takes much from Rossetti. Most obviously, Burne-Jones holds a similar admiration for female beauty. With Burne-Jones, however, beauty itself is the only point of focus, the singular endpoint. His portrayals of women almost completely lack carnality; there is rarely the implication of sex. Burne-Jones’s paintings certainly do not have the steaming sensuality of Rossetti’s paintings. On the contrary, in Burne-Jones’s work, the consummation is found in the looking, not in the touch — the eye, not the hand.

This reverence and worship for beauty, and in especial female beauty, in Burne-Jones’s works has honesty and earnestness. Nonetheless, when this reverence carries over into portrayals of romance and romantic love, it can be extreme and even unbalanced. Burne-Jones rarely suggests equity in relationships, and beauty, and female beauty in particular, is often the foremost source of power in his work. Consequently, romantic love in his work regularly becomes an exercise in the worship of beauty, and any notions of intimacy or equity in relationships fall by the wayside. Thus, one might say that, as a painter of romantic love, Burne-Jones is a painter of the pedestal.

Rossetti's King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid

King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid by Edward Burne-Jones. [Click on thumbnail for larger image.]

Burne-Jones’s King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid exemplifies this notion. The painting centers on King Cophetua sitting on a cascading sea of steps. He looks up with admiration at a beautiful woman, who is dressed in rags and stares out at the viewer. The king wears elaborate armor and has taken off his ornate crown, holding it in his hand. Burne-Jones creates a beautiful and opulent setting, largely gilded, which altogether emphasizes the impoverished dress of the beggar maid. Two young children are above the king and the maid, but do not pay attention or participate in any interaction between the king and the maid. Overall, the painting attempts to convey a beautiful sentiment: love transcends the typical boundaries of social classes. However, the painting’s main figures give the painting an unsettling hollowness. Immediately, a viewer can notice that, though the king looks at the maid, the maid does not look back at him. The maid’s contemplative gaze away from the king seems telling. She does not appear enamored with the king, and, furthermore, she likely has reason to fear his position of power and wealth. She is in no position to reject his advances, regardless of how in love or not she feels. The king, on the other hand, clearly admires the maid’s beauty, but there is no indication that his admiration goes any farther than that. For him, the woman may well be an object of beauty — which is still an object in the end. He literally condescends, but as admiring a gaze as he makes, and as beautiful as the woman is, the painting does not resonate with any sense of equity in the relationship portrayed. Beauty has won a temporary victory, but can that victory last? The answer is left up to the viewer, but the painting indicates nothing other than the king’s admiration of beauty could uphold such a relationship.

Burne-Jones's The Heart Desirs Burne-Jones's The Heart Desirs

Left: The Heart Desires by Edward Burne-Jones.

Right:The Soul Attains by Edward Burne-Jones.

Left:[Click on thumbnails for larger images.]

Likewise, Burne-Jones’s series of paintings, Pygmalion and the Image, contains a similar homage to beauty, but without any baggage of social class hierarchy. In the first of four paintings, The Heart Desires, the sculptor Pygmalion stands in his workshop contemplating sculpting the perfect woman. As he does this, two actual women peer at him through the doorway. He does not notice, however, which implies dissatisfaction with these women. In the second painting, The Hand Refrains, he has completed his sculpture of his idealized woman. In the third painting, The Godhead Fires, the goddess Venus brings the sculpture to life. In the crucial fourth painting, The Soul Attains, Pygmalion kneels down and brings the woman’s arms close to himself, while looking at her with adoration. He wears dark clothing, which contrasts markedly from the woman’s pale, naked body. Though she is nude, she is completely desexualized — the complete contrast of Rossetti’s sensual, but utterly clothed women — and yet Pygmalion seems entirely in love. Nevertheless, Burne-Jones does not seem to include any irony in his portrayal of the story of Pygmalion, as some others have done. In Burne-Jones’s rendition, the love is utterly one-sized, immediate, and honest. The love holds a status of otherness, and so long as the lover can love the object, it does not seem to matter if the object of the affections loves back. Interaction is not necessary — only sincerity. Here the placement of the lover on the pedestal is entirely literal, and yet Burne-Jones essentially intends this, for, in his portrayals of romantic love, love of the other fundamentally equates to love of beauty. And Burne-Jones’s example suggests lovers of beauty do not need beauty to love them back.

Conceptions of Romantic Love in Pre-Raphaelite Painting and Poetry

Related Material


Wood, Christopher. The Pre-Raphaelites. New York: Studio/Viking, 1981.

Last modified 12 June 2020